books book reviews

Books by Roger Scruton

reviewed by T. Nelson


Confessions of a Heretic
by Roger Scruton

reviewed by T. Nelson

I bought this book twice, though not on purpose; the first time I ordered it along with a gray beanie and a rain parka, and since I was expecting a sizable tome I discarded the first copy of this little 196 page book with the empty box.

Small doesn't mean bad, of course. In these essays Scruton finds philosophical meaning in ordinary things: Facebook conversations, architecture, classical music, dancing, and whether dogs have self-consciousness. Like G.K. Chesterton, he recognizes that what makes life worth living is as often in the insignificant details that make it up, rather than in big important abstractions. The real value of this book, though, as with G.K., is that they are also lessons in how to write beautifully.

If there's an overall theme, it is this:

The crucial claim of Hegel is that the life of freedom and self-certainty can only be obtained through others. ... It is only by entering that world, with its risks, conflicts and responsibilities, that I come to know myself as free, to enjoy my own perspective and individuality, and to become a fulfilled person among persons. [p.100–101]

Hegel called this the Entäußerung, the objectivization of the self (Google Mistrans­late says ‘alienation’) in the world of others. Scruton says mutual interaction of people is what raises us above the animal world and enables us to take responsibility for our lives.

Humans are social animals, and maybe that's why we document every stupid detail about our lives on the Internet with such enthusiasm. Or maybe, cognizant of their own mortality, posting on the Internet is just a way of documenting their life, to make sure they're remembered, as if doing so means it was real. If so, it's a lot like graffiti, which serves much the same purpose.

For me it's more mundane: to write down my thoughts on books so as to avoid buying the same one twice. Next time maybe that will work.

apr 22, 2017


An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture
by Roger Scruton

reviewed by T. Nelson

D on't assume from its stupid title that An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture is some sort of travel guide for uncultured rubes who need a quick initiation to Picasso and Stravinsky or a casual list of which cities have the finest cuisine. Rather, what we have here is a series of essays on the origins of Western culture by one of the most literate and insightful commentators of our time.

Roger Scruton believes that Western culture has strayed from the ideals of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was not just a rebirth of rationalism, says Scruton, but also created a new mysticism, manifested most strongly in Romanticism. Romanticism was not a reaction to the Enlightenment, but an attitude concealed within it. By aestheticizing nature, its worshipful impulse saw any change to nature as a form of desecration. At the same time, aestheticization placed a distance between the observer and the observed that could only be breached by destroying its intrinsic value.

Romanticism was replaced by modernism, whose goal, writes Scruton, was to make one last great attempt to save this religious view of man. It also strived to make high culture difficult to understand, as protection against popular entertainment and the ocean of sentimental kitsch made possible by technology. But in its struggle against bourgeois kitsch, modernism abandoned its links to the past and fell into the trap of demanding transgression, as a last ditch effort to get people to think and question authority. Unfortunately, without tradition, originality cannot exist. Eventually modernism had nothing left to rebel against but itself.

Scruton is one of a growing number of cultural commentators, like Roger Kimball of The New Criterion and many others, who argue that Western culture and traditional Enlightenment values should be admired, not just for their own sake, but also as a common language. Although Scruton sometimes takes things too seriously, his writing is full of sharp insights. Yet he still has difficulty explaining why one cultural style is objectively better than another.

What Scruton is really struggling with is more than the question of how to deal with modernity. To Scruton, culture and religion both define how humanity interprets ethical questions. The post-modern predicament, says Scruton, is whether we should teach our culture to the young, or let them create their own, and let our culture die. This is important, but the predicament we are facing today is bigger. Culture determines not just how we view the world, but what kind of world we create. Like religion, it provides a guide for making decisions.

We will need such a guide, because ours may be the century when we have to decide whether to allow humanity itself to be cast aside by artificially intelligent beings or to modify our genome to create an artificial humanity in control of its own future. Our efforts to preserve our culture may seem trivial by comparison, but cultural heritage determines not just what we look at in museums, but how we regard human life, and whether we regard it as worth preserving.

mar 02, 2008


The Soul of the World
by Roger Scruton

reviewed by T. Nelson

B iologists often think of religion as a bit of programming designed to protect and bring order to societies. Its social value, they say, is why religion has survived so long. Humans are religious because religion enhances group survival.

Roger Scruton rejects this evolutionary argument, saying that religion is about the search for meaning (what he calls “aboutness”). He demands that atheists consider the content of religious belief instead of just explaining it away. Following Thomas Nagel, he says our capacity of abstract thought could not have evolved by sheer chance. He argues that if evolution could select for a false belief, then all our abstract ideas, including the idea of evolution itself, could be false. Such a worldview would ultimately collapse on itself.

Atheists, of course, would say that this is exactly what is happening to religion. Feuerbach, for example, criticized religion for externalizing our innate sense of virtue, thereby alienating us from our sense of right and wrong. Scruton doesn't address these criticisms; he argues that religion is part of our culture, like literature, law, and music. For Scruton, religion is more than just a set of beliefs, social customs, and rituals. It is our connection to the universe, and to each other.

What he's saying is that science doesn't appreciate the inner nature of the human mind. This is true. But like many religious philosophers he assumes science's current lack of understanding of subjectivity is a permanent feature, and therefore a failing of science. Most scientists would disagree.

This book starts out brilliantly but ultimately doesn't hold together as a philosophical statement. It's more like a disjointed collection of lectures about music, literature and philosophy. But he has many deep insights. One of the more interesting lectures is the third one, Looking at the Brain. Here Scruton goes through the arguments about dualism and concludes that consciousness is an emergent feature of the brain.

An emergent feature is something that came about by accident from a combination of other features. This would imply that consciousness, which many would call our soul, is something that evolved by random chance. It's a surprising viewpoint for a religious person to take.

What Scruton is trying to do is to use philosophy and religion to reach a deeper understanding of how we connect to the world. There are no true individuals, he writes [p.103], but only localized vortices in the one thing that is everything. This is a profound idea, and scientists as well as religious people will find Scruton's erudition and ideas challenging.

nov 27 2014; updated nov 29 2014


Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands:
Thinkers of the New Left
by Roger Scruton

reviewed by T. Nelson

R oger Scruton's greatest book so far is this magisterial takedown of some of the most famous philosophers of the Left. This is an updated version of his 1985 book Thinkers of the New Left with RD Laing replaced by some new guys, including Badiou and the post-modernists, which by now might better be called the Long-in-the-Tooth Left. The question he wants to answer is why the ‘discredited morphology’ of Marxism has such a stranglehold on the Left.

Scruton is too polite to call them all frauds, but he engages the ideas of all of them. Take Jean-Paul Sartre. To seek absolute freedom in Marxism, as Sartre did, was to search in the unlikeliest of places. To preserve his ‘authenticity,’ Sartre had to approach it as he approached everything else, which is to say with sneering contempt; as Scruton puts it, he sadistically tortured Marxism to demonstrate his superiority.

Scruton quotes Max Weber as saying that the function of a priesthood is to mediate between the totality and the fragmentary natural world; this puts Marxism, he says, in the same category as religion and its own enemy, fascism [p. 87]. Thus Sartre finds the ‘totality’ of the Marxist worldview filling the place where God would be, if only He existed. Totalization is his catechism:

Like many words with a liturgical use [totalization] is not defined but merely repeated—and applied with such mesmerizing meaninglessness as to attract a phalanx of admirers prepared to serve as a priesthood of the faith.

Intellectuals see themselves, he says, as the God figure in the Sistine Chapel, reaching down and imparting wisdom to the humans; but in fact it is really designed to elevate the intellectual as the giver of wisdom:

The worker is the means to the intellectual's exultation, and can be abolished without scruple should he fail to perform his task. It is this wholly intellectual annihilation of the merely empirical worker that made possible his mass extermination in the merely empirical world. [p. 92, emphasis in the original]

Scruton demonstrates how each seems blissfully unaware of how unbalanced and political their ideas are: Dworkin, the New York Times writer who could not distinguish between thought and meaningless polemic; Sartre, whose totalization was a euphemism for a Stalinist hunger for power; and Badiou, who liberally sprinkled his Logics of Worlds with praise for Chairman Mao.* Badiou tried to embrace Mao while rejecting Hitler through a “deft series of nonsemes”—fragments of nonsense—designed to avoid facing the plain evidence that his favorite communist dictator was also a genocidal maniac. “As with Hobsbawm, Sartre, Lukács and Adorno,” writes Scruton, “crime for Badiou isn't crime, if the goal is utopia.”

In the chapters on Habermas, the German philosopher who wrote what may be the most soporific prose of all time, and Althusser, who murdered his wife for disagreeing with his philosophy, Scruton leads us to another conclusion: the writings of leftists are unclear because their thinking is unclear. Their confused jargon is not accidental; it is designed to obscure their unclear thought and to overthrow logic as the pre-eminent tool of the mind. The goal, says Scruton, is to take control of the language, defining intellectual life as an exclusively left-wing preserve.

The postmodernists were the worst. As Scruton puts it, they constructed a giant ‘nonsense machine,’ using nonsensical combinations of words as artillery shells to blast away meaning. Puzzled by philosopher Adrian Moore's extravagant praise for Deleuze, Scruton says Deleuze's role was

to trundle the nonsense machine from subject to subject and topic to topic in the humanities, reducing the entire landscape to the intellectual equivalent of the aftermath of the Somme.

Scruton says the postmodernists were frauds, but grants Foucault praise for his “brilliant” stylistic skill. Foucault criticized hospitals as hidden symbols of bourgeois power, but as he lay dying of AIDS, the same bourgeois hospital he railed against took him in—evidence of how cut off his ideas were from reality. “His belligerent leftism was not a criticism of reality,” Scruton says, “but a defense against it.”

What these leftists had in common was that they regarded all opposition as illegitimate, thereby liberating themselves from any obligation to consider the possibility of error. Some started out with fresh ideas and gradually become trapped as their politics lead them into a maze with no exit. They ceased questioning their assumptions and ended, he says, by rejecting the rules of intellectual inquiry.

Yet it is also a defining characteristic of leftism that they considered self-contradiction, philosophical dead ends, and the terrible price that was paid when their ideas were tried in the real world to be incidental—somebody else's problem.

Leftists often accuse conservatives of reacting to things instead of inventing new stuff, but leftism is worse: all left-wing thought eventually falls into orbit around Marxism, which like a black hole sterilizes it, spaghettifies it, and finally sucks it into itself. No left-wing thought, no matter how original, remains outside Marxism's event horizon for long.

Even ordinary liberals align themselves to the magnetic field of Marxism. Like tiny magnets, they have no choice. The left's obsession with race (a proxy for the European obsession with class), their cynicism about privilege, and the very term ‘capitalism’ are Marx's. Those who escape it automatically become libertarians or conservatives.

As for why the discredited ideas of Karl Marx still inspire the Left, Scruton suggests in the chapter on the communist philosopher Lukács and Habermas's ‘inspissated jargon’ that it is Marx's equivocation of ideology and science. Marxism is unique among ideologies in insisting it is somehow ‘scientific’ and therefore imbued with a patina of objectivity, giving ideologues confidence their ideas could not possibly be wrong.

Marxism provides an intellectual justification for our basest instincts: envy, greed, group hatred and revenge. It provides a way to soothe people's egos by letting them blame their failures and discontent on other races and social classes. History has shown repeatedly that this leads to tyranny and mass murder. So why are so many smart people attracted to it?

One reason might be that it gives intellectuals what they crave most: power. The temptation to an academic, whose only real power is in ideas, of using those ideas to conquer and rule the masses by dividing them up into classes (and more recently, races and sexes), and the thrill of imagining oneself on the winning side of history's inevitable direction, may explain why this damn thing just won't die.

dec 21 2015; updated dec 22 2015

* See Laruelle's Anti-Badiou for an even more compelling, and witty, critique of Badiou's ideas.